This is the first installment from the series of posts that will describe my thoughts and technical insights from selected works included in our newly released book, “Not Far from Home”….Enjoy!
“Mr. Johnson” pages 58-59 “A Study in Edges”
Often as I survey the model before me…I look for the one key visual aspect that initially catches my eye and make this the focus of my study as I strive to convey the inspiration. This can include a desire to capture an elusive harmony so subtle and beautiful that its only real tangibility is a vibration in the heart or a chasing after a fleeting quality of light that lasts only moments. Perhaps it is the lyrical rhythm of line that weaves through the subject so as to express continuity and harmony that words could never express or any myriad of aesthetic qualities that capture your eye. In essence, these characteristics are variations of line, harmony, tone, color or edge. In this particular work, a study in edges was the focus as I strove to convey the power of the form and drama of the subject.
(I must mention at this point, that as a beginner, I was a bit overwhelmed when I approached the subject and faced the overload of problems to solve with so much to sort out at once. For my own sanity during the early stages of development, it was important to focus only on one thing at a time. For instance, if edges were my main focus, I would not worry as much if I had all the color temperatures accurate or the tonal ranges in perfect order. Of course, as you progress you must bring all of these together, but as a beginner, it is fruitful to not let discouragement take hold and tackle only what you can handle in manageable pieces.)
As I proceed to describe the way I handle edge treatment, I will show you what to look for in the subject to best discern what the actual edges are and how they should to be delineated in order to convey the accurate form that we literally see . The key to painting edges accurately is to truthfully observe how they look in there proper relation to each other and paint that relationship. I realize that there are many theories on edge treatment that deal with the arbitrary hardening or softening of an edge to diminish or strengthen the design or better convey the emotion or mood, but these attributes of what edges can achieve will not be my emphasis here.
Before I set my brush to the canvas, I find it very important to take an assessment of the subject in terms of the extremes of value, color and edges and organize my thinking from the outset. In this case, as edges were my focus, I squinted down at Mr. Johnson, and made a mental note of the hardest visible edges. (These are circled in red). Why do I squint??? If I don’t, everything appears to have a sameness of edge. By gently closing my eyes about half way, the forms are simplified and the variety between hard and soft becomes more visibly evident. This contrast between the hard and soft is critical to capture and is a powerful tool we must utilize.
You will notice in the circled areas that the edge quality is razor sharp in some spots. This is how they looked when I was squinting down! It is so important to paint these RAZOR sharp. I could not notice the contrast between these hard edges and the softer edges with my eyes wide open. For instance, observe the difference between the sharp edge circled between his eyes and the edges of his brow line as the eye sockets rounded up into the forehead or the hard edge of the hat visor compared to the softer edges on the cast shadow on the forehead from the hat. Another area of great edge contrast is on the area of the neck beneath the chin. Notice the extremely sharp edge between the neck and shirt compared to the softer edges of the cast shadow of the chin on the neck. Also, an area that I often see painted too hard by students is the edge quality of the transition between the top plane and the bottom plane of the nose. Observe the very soft quality of this turning form. It is tempting to block in the forms with much vigor and strength and then leave it. We must not fail to take note of the subtle transitions to accentuate the turning of form and record it accordingly.
Early in my development, I would admire many of the broad brush painters and be seduced by the bold sweeping strokes and remember only them when rendering a head or figure. Those “beauty strokes” as my friend Scott Christensen so aptly calls them, should not destroy the form or take away from the sensitivity to the subject. What I failed to notice was the painstaking attention to the accurate rendering of the form beneath the bold surface quality.
So the next time you have a subject before you, carefully assess the subject, squint down and let the sharpest edges emerge. When beginning a work, establish the sharpest edges as early as you can in the painting so that you can use them to compare against. THIS IS CRITICAL! As you progress, hold on the sharpest edges as reference points and notice the how all of the other edge transitions relate to them in descending order. It is this great contrast that will give your work new dimension! And as my great teacher Bill Parks would say, “Keep smiling at your work, yourself and the model!”
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